Down, but not defeated: What is the future of ISIS after Raqqa?

Anti-ISIS fighters declared victory over the group in its de facto capital, but defeating its ideology will be a more difficult battle, writes Derek Stoffel.

Extremist group is expected to return to its insurgent roots, analysts say

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated their victory over ISIS in Raqqa, which the militants had declared as their capital in 2014. (Reuters)

The militia tanks and armoured vehicles that paraded through the streets of Raqqa on Tuesday marked the symbolic demise of ISIS rule in the Syrian city where militants had established their de facto capital. 

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) held a victory parade of sorts in Raqqa's central Paradise Square, a space that for three years looked more like hell, as it was where ISIS carried out public beheadings.

"This is a historic victory, not only for us, but the entire world," said Jihan Ahmed of the SDF.

Raqqa may have fallen, and the militants may control just a fraction of the territory they did in their heyday, but by no means is ISIS defeated in either Syria or Iraq. The group's ideology lives on.

A brutal brand of extremism 

At its peak in 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State ruled over approximately nine million people across Syrian and Iraq — equal to the entire country of Jordan. The group collected taxes and oil revenues and provided local services — but it also doled out punishment to men who did not keep their beards the right length or women who dressed immodestly.

The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his Islamic caliphate in Mosul in 2014. (Reuters)

The extremists caught the world's attention after videos began to appear online showing prisoners in orange jumpsuits being brutally killed, often by beheading. After the militants stormed into Mosul and took over, the West decided it was time to act.

The United States formed a coalition, which includes Canada, that has launched unrelenting airstrikes against ISIS positions across Syria and Iraq. Russia joined the fray. Iraqi and Syrian government forces took aim at ISIS as well — in a battle that has also involved other regional players, including Turkey and Iran.

In an audio message released by militants in September, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accused the Americans of using scorched-earth tactics in its campaign against his group, saying U.S. forces had "burned the people, trees and everything on the ground."

ISIS caught the world's attention after videos appeared online showing atrocities committed by its members, including beheadings. (Associated Press)

Baghdadi utlimately ignored the severe territorial losses suffered by his group, instead making indirect references to recent attacks in Barcelona and London's subway that his organization had claimed responsibility for.

"Now the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries, fearing the strikes of the mujahedeen," al-Baghdadi is purported to have said.

A return to its roots

This seems to be a signal that ISIS, with its territorial conquests having largely been reversed, will revert to the tactics of a brutal insurgency that made the world sit up and take notice three years ago.

ISIS militants continue to have the ability to launch suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad and Damascus, with devastating results. Meanwhile, regional branches of the group continue to carry out attacks in Libya and Egypt's Sinai peninsula. 

This photo captures ISIS fighters marching through Raqqa in 2014, during the early days of the group's existence. (Canadian Press)

ISIS will likely be pushed out of its remaining desert hideouts and the small urban centres it controls in a swath of land that straddles the Syrian and Iraqi border — and it could happen within weeks, some analysts predict.

But defeating its ideology will be much harder.

'No plan' after ISIS

Many of the conditions that led to the formation of the Islamic State remain today. Syria's civil war shows no sign of ending. Iraq is still deeply divided, with two former allies — the Kurds and Iraqi security forces — turning their guns on each other earlier this week.

There are serious splits along sectarian, ethnic and regional lines that continue to drive instability across the Middle East, leaving the region open to the expansion of extremism.

"Unfortunately, the West has no plan on what to do the day after ISIS," said Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

Momani believes a detailed strategy, similar to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe following the Second World War, is needed for Syria and Iraq. This could ensure "there are functioning local economies, so that we don't have that kind of desperate situation that forced many locals to turn to ISIS."

This is now the state of Raqqa - about 80 per cent of the city has been destroyed in the battle to retake it from ISIS. (Reuters)

Post-ISIS efforts also need to include "some sort of rehabilitation" for those who continue to feel isolated and may still harbour ISIS sympathies, Momani said.

"We need to basically reeducate these populations," she said. "In many cases, children have ... grown [up] under the ideology of this terrorist organization."

Reducing recruitment

ISIS has been able to peddle its ideology online, which became an invaluable recruitment tool, attracting fighters from across the Middle East and around the world, including from Canada

According to the U.S. military, the anti-ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq have reduced the organization's ranks of fighting members.

"Their flow of foreign recruits has gone from about 1,500 fighters a month down to near zero today," Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, said on Tuesday.

But analysts say the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa could actually lead to a resurgence in recruitment, especially among those who may harbour anti-Western sentiments and are angered by the potential demise of an extremist group they sympathize with.


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.


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